Category Archives: Country Houses

For your tomorrow we gave our today

Fountains Hall, North Yorkshire: memorial to Elizabeth and Charles Vyner

Fountains Hall is a quirky Jacobean house, built into a steep hillside, probably to a design by Robert Smythson, on the edge of the precinct of the medieval Fountains Abbey.  Indeed, its stones came from the Abbey, plundered by the builder, the unlikeable Stephen Proctor, in the first decade of the seventeenth century. 

Periods of neglect in its long history kept it intact and charming.  In the late 1920s it was renovated by Commander Clare and Lady Doris Vyner and during the Second World War the house was used to accommodate evacuees.

The Vyners’ daughter Elizabeth joined the Women’s Royal Naval Service and died of lethargic encephalitis, or sleeping sickness, aged eighteen, on June 3rd 1942.  Her death reminds us that not all the victims of war die by enemy action, but for their loved ones the loss is as great and the grief no less hard to bear.

Elizabeth Vyner’s younger brother, Charles De Grey Vyner, served as a pilot in the Royal Naval Reserve, and was reported missing in action when his plane crashed into the sea off Rangoon on May 2nd 1945.  He was nineteen.

Word reached his family on May 12th.  After the euphoria of VE Day on the 8th there could hardly have been a more cruel blow.

After the War Elizabeth and Charles’ parents erected a memorial, poignantly placed above the main door of the Hall, a stained-glass window flanked by carved figures of brother and sister in uniform.  It was designed by John Seely and Paul Paget and was unveiled on April 9th 1953 by Elizabeth’s godmother, after whom she was named, HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

The memorial is visible only to visitors leaving the house, unless on entering they reach the top of the stairs and turn. 

Its inscription reads, “When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today.  From this their home, they went forth to war.”

Muscular Gothic

Bestwood Lodge, Nottinghamshire

On my 2019 ‘Pugin and the Gothic Revival’ tour, we took a lunch stop, between the parish church of St Mary, Derby and St Barnabas’ Cathedral, Nottingham, at the astonishing Bestwood Lodge, now a Best Western hotel:  https://www.bestwoodlodgehotel.co.uk.

Dropping Bestwood Lodge into a tour themed around the work of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was, as Londoners would say, “’avin’ a larf”.

The architect for this extravaganza was Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812-1873), who after twenty years of steady work within the mainstream of the Gothic Revival was beginning to take the theoretical principles of Pugin and Scott to extremes.  He appears to have decided that the time and the market had arrived for him to throw stylistic caution to the wind and build aggressively.  Some modern writers have labelled this style “muscular Gothic”.

Teulon’s client was William Beauclerk, 10th Duke of St Albans (1840-1898), who had the vestiges of a medieval hunting lodge removed to make way for a completely new and quite startling country retreat, in Nottingham pressed brick with Mansfield stone dressings vigorously carved by the Nottingham-born sculptor Thomas Earp (1828-1893).

The house stands high on a defined level terrace;  its gables, dormers, chimneys and spires give it a lively skyline and its elevations bristle with a succession of varied bays, turrets and buttresses.

The main porch is a weird collection of Gothic ingredients – vaulting supporting an oriel, flying buttresses at right angles to each other and quirky pinnacles set diagonally.  Carvings of Robin Hood and his merry men peer down from this bizarre composition. 

The wing to the left of the entrance looks for all the world like a chapel but was designed originally – to the expressed disapproval of the ultra-orthodox Ecclesiologist – as the servants’ hall.  Later on it did in fact become a chapel.

The most impressive interior space is the central hall, top-lit by an octagonal lantern, its Gothic arcading almost certainly modified by a later owner.  The heavy stepped fireplace shows how far Teulon was prepared to squash, stretch and distort orthodox Gothic forms.  It seems not to have harmed his commercial prospects;  Pevsner relates that it was on the recommendation of his work at Bestwood that he was invited to work at Sandringham.

The tenth Duke’s friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, brought numerous royal visits, sometimes incognito:  the Prince and Princess of Wales stayed at Bestwood for the opening of the Castle Museum in 1878, and Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son, visited when he opened University College in 1881.

After the death of the tenth Duke in 1898 the house was leased for long periods while his son, Charles, 11th Duke (1870-1934) was confined to an asylum.  It was finally vacated when the estate was sold to pay the eleventh Duke’s death duties in 1938. 

The purchaser was Sir Harold Bowden, 2nd Bt (1880-1960), chairman of the Raleigh Bicycle Company.  The house was first requisitioned and later purchased by the Army for headquarters, and became a hotel in the 1970s.

Pugin would have loathed it.

Soi-disant castle

Willersley Castle, Derbyshire

Maureen, one of my regular Interesting Times tour-guests, has alerted me to the sale of Willersley Castle, which we visited for lunch on our ‘Derbyshire Derwent Valley’ tour:  https://christianguild.co.uk/willersley.

It operated as a Christian Guild holiday hotel until the coronavirus pandemic forced its closure.  The owners have now decided not to reopen:  https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/news/local-news/stunning-castle-hotel-derbyshire-go-4309370.

Its main claim to fame is that it was to be the residence of the great cotton-spinning inventor, Sir Richard Arkwright (1732-1792), whose pioneering mills lie out of sight within fifteen minutes’ walk of the front door.

Mr Arkwright, as he was until he was knighted in 1786, chose Cromford as the site for his first water-powered factory, which he opened in 1771.  He resided at Rock House, tucked on a hill even nearer to the mills but on the other side south of the River Derwent.  He sought to balance the practical necessity of keeping an eye on the works and workers with the amenities he considered suited to his increasing wealth.

To call Willersley a castle is stretching the definition.  Designed initially by the little-known William Thomas [https://www.artuk.org/discover/artworks/william-thomas-216451], it’s an essentially classical house with battlements and turrets.  John Byng, later Viscount Torrington, famously described it as “an effort of inconvenient ill taste”.

When he visited in 1789 Byng was scathing about the location, screened from sight of the Mill by a high cliff, overlooking a bend in the River Derwent:

…really he has made a happy choice of ground, for by sticking it up on an unsafe bank, he contrives to overlook, not see, the beauties of the river, and the surrounding scenery.  It is the house of an overseer surveying the works, not of a gentleman…But light come, light go, Sir Richard has honourably made his great fortune and so let him still live in a great cotton mill!

The following year Torrington revisited Cromford and inspected the partly-completed interior of Arkwright’s mansion:

…built so high as to overlook every beauty, and to catch every wind;  the approach is dangerous;  the ceilings are of gew-gaw fret work;  the small circular staircase…is so dark and narrow, that people cannot pass each other;  I ask’d a workman if there was a library?– Yes, answer’d he, at the foot of the stairs.  Its dimensions are 15 feet square;  (a small counting house;) and having the perpendicular lime stone rock within 4 yards, it is too dark to read or write in without a candle!  There is likewise a music room;  this is upstairs, is 18 feet square, and will have a large organ in it:  what a scheme!  What confinement!  At Clapham they can produce nothing equal to this, where ground is sold by the yard…

The Castle was damaged by fire in 1791, shortly before Sir Richard Arkwright’s death, and his son, the banker Richard Arkwright II, commissioned Thomas Gardner of Uttoxeter to rebuild and improve the house.

The finest feature of the interior is the oval hall, which borrows light from the roof to enhance what William Thomas intended to be the main staircase.  Other elegant rooms with fireplaces remain.

The Arkwright family lived at Willersley until 1922, long after they’d abandoned the mills.

The Methodist Guild opened it as a Christian hotel in 1928, and it has remained a holiday retreat ever since, except during the Second World War when the Salvation Army operated it as a maternity home.

Now its future is uncertain, threatened by the economic impact of the pandemic. 

Cinderella House

Grainsby Hall, Lincolnshire (1968)

A chance feature in Lincolnshire Life in 1968 led me on my Lincolnshire Road Car Company staff bus-pass to another remote country house not far from Cadeby Hall – the Italianate fantasy of Grainsby Hall, which clearly bemused Henry Thorold in his Lincolnshire Houses book and was dismissed by Pevsner as “crazy”.

I didn’t think the place at all crazy;  in fact, I rather liked it.

It was wilfully asymmetrical, with a tower over the entrance portico and lots of stark plate glass windows which, in 1968, were largely intact.

When I revisited by car a couple of years later, the windows – and, I think, the door – had gone and I was free to take pictures of the shattered and clearly dangerous interior, which included a grand octagonal drawing room and a massive galleried staircase hall.

This Italianate confectionery dated from 1860 and was built around an earlier, eighteenth-century house.

The Haigh family has owned the Grainsby estate since it came to William Haigh of Norland, Halifax, by marriage in 1827.  In the nineteenth century the family owned the Garden Street Mill in Halifax.

The Hall must have been a splendid place but it was occupied by the military during World War II and fell into disrepair.

For a time it was used as a grain store, until it became dangerous.

It quickly became beyond saving, even between the dates of my two visits, and it was duly demolished in February 1973.

The c1820 stable block remains and is listed Grade II.

Sleeping beauty house

Cadeby Hall, Lincolnshire (1982)

I recently read Henry Thorold’s Lincolnshire Houses (Michael Russell 1999), an extensive compendium of domestic buildings in a huge, empty, varied county, ranging from great palaces like Grimsthorpe and Harlaxton to tiny rectories and houses hidden in the Wolds, quite a few of which were built, bought or inherited by Henry Thorold’s relatives over the past four centuries.

It reminded me of when I first got to know Lincolnshire in the late 1960s, working on the buses in Skegness during university vacations, and travelling the county on a quarter-fare staff bus pass.

In those days there was, of course, no easy way to find information about historic buildings in the county, except the local library, the 1964 first edition Pevsner for Lincolnshire, and the periodical Lincolnshire Life.

A few brief paragraphs in Lincolnshire Life alerted me to Cadeby Hall, up in the Wolds near Ludborough, on the way to Grimsby.

Even the later 1979 Pevsner gives the place short shrift – “an early C18 stone front of seven bays and 2½ storeys…inside, a good staircase…at the time of writing derelict…”

The inimitable Henry Thorold calls it “the Sleeping Beauty house par excellence”.

When I first saw it in 1968 it was already derelict, with a ‘Danger Keep Out’ notice on the front door.  At the rear a service wing which I then thought to be Victorian but now know to have been eighteenth century had been demolished.  I didn’t attempt to enter.

The Hall is easily visible from a public footpath but it’s not a place you’d come across on your way anywhere.

I found it again driving round north Lincolnshire in 1982, by which time it had been tidied up and was apparently in use as a shooting lodge.

Now, by the magic of Google, I discover that it has been splendidly refurbished with, on the site of the demolished rear wing, a tactful, decorous neo-Georgian extension:  http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4163107.

I’ve no idea who lives there:  they’re lucky, and we’re lucky that they’ve saved a hidden gem.

Cadeby Hall is a private house.

The smartest Starbucks in Sheffield

Carbrook Hall, Sheffield: Oak Room fireplace overmantel

Every old building needs to earn its keep.

It’s pointless to argue for the retention of a historic building, listed or not, without the means to maintain it into the future.

Seventeenth-century Carbrook Hall, for many years a pub in the heart of Sheffield’s industrial east end, closed in 2017, yet another casualty of the inexorable decline of the British public house, and a year later suffered an arson attack that was fortunately arrested before the entire building went up in smoke.

Local historians and CAMRA members hoped it would reopen as licensed premises, but its new owner, the property developer Sean Fogg, applied lateral thinking and leased it to the coffee chain, Starbucks.

Mr Fogg spent £700,000, assisted by Starbucks’ contribution of £400,000, to restore the remaining stone wing of what was a much larger house, enhancing its surroundings, replacing a nondescript twentieth-century service block with a tactful 21st-century drive-in facility, and bringing the three exceptional historic interiors to a high state of preservation.

Walking into the building is a time-warp, because the coffee-shop counter, located where the pub bar used to be, is an up-to-the-minute skinny-latte-and-panini experience.

Turn left and enter the Oak Room, though, and despite the bright lighting and modern furniture, you’re surrounded by high-quality panelled walls and a crisp plaster ceiling that witnessed the discussions about besieging Sheffield Castle during the Civil War nearly four centuries ago.

This was the home of the Puritan Bright family, in those days lost in the spacious meadowlands of the Lower Don Valley. It’s possible that their interior decorators were the craftsmen who worked on the Little Keep at Bolsover Castle, Derbyshire.  It’s the oldest building in the valley and has seen no end of changes.

At the opposite end of the ground floor is an ancient kitchen with stone stoves and a bread oven.

A second panelled room upstairs is not yet completed, but will be dedicated to public use when fully restored.

The restoration is meticulous, though the conservationists were disturbed to find that the ancient oak had been peppered by stray darts around the site of the dart board: https://theworldnews.net/gb-news/historic-former-sheffield-pub-damaged-by-stray-darts.

The reopening of Carbrook Hall is a boost to public awareness of the area’s historic heritage.

I’m pleased that we can now end the heritage Bus Rides Round Attercliffe at the oldest building in the Lower Don Valley.

To find out about what’s happening at Carbrook Hall Starbucks, follow them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/StarbucksCarbrookHallSheffield.

For details of the next public Bus Ride Round Attercliffe, please click here.

The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 ‘Sheffield’s Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Georgian transport hub

White Swan Hotel, Drakeholes, Nottinghamshire (2018)

White Swan Hotel, Drakeholes, Nottinghamshire (2018)

Chesterfield Canal: Drakeholes Tunnel

Chesterfield Canal: Drakeholes Tunnel

When my navigator Richard directed me to Drakeholes to photograph the tunnel on the Chesterfield Canal the first thing we saw was not the canal but a very large, very Gothick, very derelict building which turned out to be the former White Swan Hotel.

This marks a major transport interchange from the days when everything that moved along roads and canals was propelled by muscle power.

It sits where the junction of four roads, where the old Roman road between Bawtry and the Trent ferry at Littleborough crosses the road from Blyth to Gainsborough.  Here it coincides with the canal, which burrows under the road in a 154-yard-long tunnel as it turns north on its way to its terminus at West Stockwith.

Almost opposite the White Swan is a pair of lodges, beautifully restored after years of dereliction, flanking what used to be the gateway to Wiseton Hall.  The pair was in fact a single dwelling, one lodge for living, the other for sleeping.

It forms only part of the work of Jonathan Acklom, local landowner and the instigator of the Wiseton Enclosure in 1763, who marked the “surrounding eminences” with elegant farms, such as Pusto Hill Farm and Blaco Hill Farm, described by the late-eighteenth historian John Throsby as “ornaments to the domain,…highly creditable to the taste of the owner”.

At the time that Jonathan Acklom rebuilt his family seat at Wiseton Hall in 1771 the Chesterfield Canal was under construction.  He stipulated that it should not approach his estate nearer than two hundred yards.

He built the White Swan to serve traffic coming along the roads to reach the canal company’s wharf at the southern end of the short tunnel, which opened in 1776.

Drakeholes was the Georgian equivalent of a modern transport interchange, and it was all created within a decade.

Though the Hall has gone, replaced by a smaller neo-Georgian house in 1962, its stables survive opposite the old gateway, along with the newer avenue which crosses the canal by the ornate Lady’s Bridge, otherwise known from its decayed carving as Man’s Face Bridge.

The modern Wiseton Hall is strictly private.

For background information on the Georgian Wiseton Hall see http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/Jacks1881/wiseton.htm and http://landedfamilies.blogspot.com/2013/03/14-acklom-of-wiseton-hall.html.

Venus’ previous home

Rokeby Park, Co Durham

Rokeby Park, Co Durham

Rokeby Park, just outside Barnard Castle in what was once the North Riding of Yorkshire, is a delightful place to visit, though you have to pick the right afternoon to find it open.

It’s the home of Sir Andrew Morritt, whose family have owned the estate since 1769.

To describe it as a home is no cliché.

There’s a table with guide-books and postcards, and visitors are offered a commodious ground-floor convenience, but there’s no tea-shop, nor gift shop, no potpourri or potted plants.

You’re welcome to go through any door that is open, and to sit on any chair that isn’t taped.

The house-tour is free-flow, as are the guides, an affable and knowledgeable team who make guests feel at home.

The house was built by Sir Thomas Robinson (1703-1777), the amateur architect who was fond of telling his friends how to design their houses, and who is best known for adding the west wing to Sir John Vanburgh’s incomplete Castle Howard.

Rokeby Park is an almost perfect Palladian villa, never completed because Sir Thomas ran out of money.  Rather than leave it unfinished, Sir Thomas rounded it off and successive owners have tactfully extended it.

Sir Thomas sold the estate to John Sawrey Morritt, who commissioned John Carr of York to adapt the original stable wing to provide a spacious, elegant dining room with plasterwork by Joseph Rose the Elder (c1723-1780).

J S Morritt’s son, John Bacon Sawrey Morritt (1772?-1843) was a connoisseur and collector, whose Grand Tour extended into Asia Minor.  He was one of the founders of the Travellers’ Club (1819) and he was a close friend of Sir Walter Scott, whose poem ‘Rokeby’ is dedicated to him.

He bought the painting by Diego Velázquez of Venus and Cupid, now known as the ‘Rokeby Venus’, which he described as “my fine picture of Venus’s backside”.  He went to some trouble over its hanging:  “…by raising the said backside to a considerable height the ladies may avert their downcast eyes without difficulty, and connoisseurs steal a glance without drawing in the said posterior as part of the company”.

The Velázquez was sold by a cash-strapped descendant – it’s now in the National Gallery – and a 1906 copy by W A Menzies hangs in its place.

The park stands at the confluence of the River Greta and the River Wear, and the lawn ends at a spectacular drop into the Greta gorge – the sort of ha-ha no-one could emulate.

The walks through the gorge are comparable with the more contrived landscape at Hackfall, and more formal Yorkshire gardens at Studley Royal, Rievaulx and Duncombe Park.

Rokeby was at one time written as ‘Rookby’, which seems to be the preferred pronunciation.

It’s easy to miss.  Don’t miss it:  http://www.rokebypark.com.

Unsurpassed Englishness

Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire:  east front

Staunton Harold Hall, Leicestershire: east front

The grouping of Staunton Harold Hall and Church is, according to Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England, “unsurpassed in the country – certainly as far as Englishness is concerned”.

In fact, the little church, which looks medieval, is later.  The elegant Palladian house, on the other hand, incorporates an older building.

The story of the estate up to 1954 is the story of the Shirley family, who owned it by 1423.

Sir Robert Shirley, 4th Bt, built the Church of the Holy Trinity in the Commonwealth period “when all thinges Sacred were throughout ye nation either demolisht or profaned” for which he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he died in 1656.

Queen Anne elevated the seventh baronet to the peerage as Earl Ferrers and Viscount Tamworth in 1711.

Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl (1720-1760) shot and killed his land-steward, Mr Johnson, in the hall at Staunton Harold, and was tried by his peers and condemned to death.  He was the last English peer to die a felon’s death, hanged at Tyburn, supposedly with a silken rope, and publicly dissected at the Surgeon’s Hall:  http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/ferrers.html.

By contrast, his younger brother, Vice-Admiral Washington Shirley, 5th Earl (1722-1778), remodelled the house in the Palladian style.

The magnificent staircase hall (c1764) is part of his improvements and may be attributed to Benjamin Yates, a pupil of Robert Bakewell (1682-1752) who designed the screen at Staunton Harold Church.

The fifth earl is thought to figure on the extreme right in Joseph Wright’s painting ‘A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery’ (1766), which he purchased to hang at Staunton Harold.

Sewallis Shirley (1847-1912), the childless 10th Earl, left the estate burdened with debt.  The title passed to his fourth cousin, Walter Shirley, 11th Earl (1864-1937), an architect who gave up his practice to take care of the family property.

His son, Robert Shirley, 12th Earl (1894-1954) occupied the hall for only three years before it was requisitioned, first for the army and then as a prisoner-of-war camp.  By the time he regained possession in 1947 it was no longer fit to live in, and in 1954 he decided, rather than leave his son and heir “saddled with this white elephant I’ve struggled with all these years”, to sell up the estate and transfer Staunton Harold Church to the National Trust.  He died the night before the auction took place.

A demolition contractor bought the house, and within six months sold it to Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC (1917-1992) for use as one of the Cheshire Homes for the Incurably Sick.  The Cheshire Home moved into more convenient premises in 1985 and Staunton Harold became a hospice for Group Captain Cheshire’s wife Sue Ryder’s Foundation.  Declining numbers caused the Sue Ryder Home at Staunton Harold to close in 2002.

It was purchased by John and Jacqueline Blunt in 2003.  In 1955 John Blunt’s father had bought three farms on the estate, including the stable block which they converted to craft workshops and studios and opened as the Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts in 1974.  The Blunts adapted the house to provide living space for themselves and members of their family, and use the state rooms to host a maximum of twelve weddings a year.

Staunton Harold Hall is open to the public in prearranged groups:  http://www.stauntonharoldestate.co.uk/history.

The simple life

Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire

Stoneywell, Ulverscroft, Leicestershire

I’ve known, ever since the days when I ran country-house tours for Nottingham University, that the people who manage National Trust property contribute to its atmosphere.

So, on my first visit to the recently acquired Stoneywell, just outside Leicester, the warmth of the welcome was striking even on a chilly autumn afternoon.

There’s literally nowhere to park at this property, so visitors are greeted with a minibus at the car-park down the lane.  There is a shop in the stables, and a modest café in the old laundry which is warmed by the original copper.

Strolling in the garden, a survival of the ancient Charnwood Forest, it’s difficult to remember that the outer suburbs of Leicester are only a couple of miles away to the east, and the M1 motorway is barely half a mile to the west.

The house itself is an overgrown cottage, hunched into the hillside rather like an upmarket hobbit house.  It’s built of local materials, and grows organically from the hillside on which it stands, so that its three floors in fact have six different levels on a zig-zag ground plan.

It’s a hugely significant building, commissioned by Sydney Gimson (1860-1938), son of the founder of a Leicester engineering company that built steam engines and other machinery.  It was completed in 1899.

Sydney Gimson bought enough land in Charnwood Forest to provide plots for his older half-brother, Mentor, and his younger sister, Margaret.

He commissioned his younger brother Ernest Gimson (1864-1919) to design Stoneywell, and employed the architect Detmar Blow (1867-1939) as clerk of works.

Both Gimson and Blow were devotees of the Arts & Crafts movement:  Detmar Blow believed that architects should get their hands dirty, which slowed things down and caused some irritation;  Ernest Gimson was closely associated with the Birmingham-born brothers Ernest and Sidney Barnsley, with whom he set up a workshop at Sapperton, Gloucestershire.

For two generations, until the 1950s, Stoneywell was a country retreat for the summer and Christmas, a place of adventure for the children of the family and their friends, and an opportunity to live a simpler life far removed from their town house and the engineering factory in nearby Leicester.

This much-loved place was too good to give up, and so passed down the family, on Sidney’s death in 1938 to his son Basil (who taught at Bedales School, where his uncle Ernest designed the library).

A fire destroyed the thatched roof in 1937 but most of the cottage and its contents survived and were restored, with a roof of local Swithland slate, by Basil’s brother Humphrey Gimson (1890-1982).

When Basil died in 1953, the house passed to his son Donald (born 1924) who gently modernised it for year-round living:  he sold it to the National Trust in 2012 and continues to make periodic visits.

Continuity of ownership means that this exquisite dwelling retains most of its original contents, with tables, chairs, beds and fittings designed and made by Ernest Gimson and the Barnsley brothers.

It’s a testament to the Arts & Crafts values that William Morris promoted through the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and the Art Workers’ Guild.

The simple life is all well and good.  Janet Ashbee, wife of the architect Charles Robert Ashbee, writes that the artist Roger Fry tried the simple life but found it too complicated and had to give it up.

The Gimsons made it work, shinning up narrow staircases and a ladder to bed well into old age.

And now its beauty is accessible to everyone – provided they book a timed ticket to prevent overcrowding.